The Santa Monica City Council approved its $745 million budget last week and while the Council fell into several rabbit holes related to public safety, the discussion resulted in little to no new action funding the local police department.

The budget as proposed to Council already included the addition of six police officers and one police sergeant to expand the Homeless Liaison Program team, investing in technology to enhance community safety, enhanced patrol and security services at the Pier, Beach, and Downtown, a new transit safety officer program for Big Blue Bus (BBB) and the restoration of staff to the Santa Monica Animal Shelter.

Councilman Phil Brock was the first to pitch going above and beyond those proposals with requests to expand private security options downtown to alleviate the burden on police officers and a proposal to expand the police budget by about $500,000.

“I know that our City Police Department feels that it’s under control, residents still feel their issues, businesses still feel their issues,” he said. “So whether it be public service officers, additional private security forces from either Good Guard or Covered Six downtown, in addition to the parking lot coverage, we should make an attempt to provide at least weekend nights coverage of some types in Palisades Park between Colorado and California, and on Ocean Avenue etc., because that would also free police officers to take on more urgent matters around the city.”

Brock said targeted enforcement Downtown has started to show results and he said he had identified several options for cuts that would fund an increase in police spending. However, his motion did not advance despite a revision that cut his proposed increase to $200,000.

Proposals to divert money away from the animal shelter and increase martial arts training for officers also fizzled.

Some civilian staff were cut from the shelter as part of the city’s large purge during Covid and Batista said officers are filling the gaps at the moment but the system is costing the city overtime pay and is driving animal control officers away from the organization as they don’t want to do two jobs. The budget included $85,000 to hire as many as three part time individuals to help with the situation and that money persisted despite an idea to move some of it towards the technology budget.

A recommendation to spend $20,000, a pittance in the grand scheme of the budget, on expanded Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training was also floated. The idea came from the City’s Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission as a means of addressing use of force issues and reducing workers compensation claims. However, the City Manager and Police Chief said neither workers comp or excessive force complaints are significant challenges in the current department and that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is already part of officer training.

In response to several council questions, Police Chief Ramon Batista said the department has the money it needs for this year but he is looking to improve the department’s situation, both in terms of officers and resources, in the future.

Chief Batista said the department is utilizing technology that doesn’t cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, such as more advanced security cameras, as a way to increase efficiency and free up human officers to respond to more serious incidents.

However, the department does have some big ticket items on its wishlist including establishing a new Crime Information Center that would help analyze information to determine more efficient uses of police time.

Batista said he’s applying for $6 million dollars as part of a large grant program available to police departments statewide targeted to issues of retail theft.

“So this grant, it would give us essentially more than just a startup money to get it going, it would be able to allow us to run the program for a certain amount of time,” he said. “Hopefully, in that amount of time, also our city’s finances begin to improve, and then we can take it from there.”

Batista acknowledged that serious crime was up about 7 percent but said the rate of growth had been cut by about half and attributed those cuts to changes the department has made.

“So I believe that what we’ve been budgeted so far, and the way that we’ve been given the opportunity to use overtime in order to address these pressing hotspots of crime has helped us to get to a point where we are receiving fewer 911 calls for service, that in addition to the officers’ proactive activity, an increase in arrests of criminals is leading to what I see is a decrease in those calls,” he said.

He said after years of being understaffed the department is making progress towards hiring enough officers to actually fill its ranks with about 218 of 221 positions filled. However, there are about 50 retirements pending over the next two years.

Councilman Oscar de la Torre asked if the Chief needed more resources to specifically address the Metro line and Metro’s possible switch from the Sheriff to a newly formed Metro police department for enforcement on the tracks.

Batista said he’s met with Metro and he is working to create policies that don’t just funnel individuals into Santa Monica by potentially staggering end of the night service to end at different points and create a fare enforcement system that didn’t strand people in Santa Monica if they boarded a train without a ticket.

He said that SMPD doesn’t have primary responsibility for crimes on Metro but under the current system, local resources are being diverted to those calls anyway.

“Our biggest ask at the moment is that the Sheriff’s office be present and accountable for the calls for service that come from the platform,” he said. “Because as it stands today, more often than not, the Santa Monica Police Department responds to the care of victims on the platform and then we have to wait for services from LASD to arrive. And sometimes those arrival times take so long that our officers end up taking the call, and then handing over the investigation to LASD investigators for follow up.”

After about 15 individuals came to the last meeting to specifically advocate for more public safety information and measures, a handful of residents returned to the theme on June 27. Council acknowledged those speakers but generally defended the City’s handling of crime.

Councilwoman Lana Negrete said, and then reemphasized, the department has been budgeted as best it can given the city has yet to fully recover from the pandemic and is being forced to spend money in other places, such as the multi-million dollar settlement related to child abuse by a former city employee.

“And I want to point out that our police department was not always supported by the same community who was crying out now for more police,” she said. “Let me repeat that, this police department has not always been supported by the same community who’s now asking for more police. So let me sit with that for a minute. Please know that they are doing everything and responding in a climate that’s very different. They’ve become social service representatives. They are dealing with everything from homelessness to psychosis on our streets on top of crime and drugs. So I want us all to be aware that with limited staff, we are doing the best we can.”

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...